Book Review: Death at the Priory: Love, Sex, and Murder in Victorian England by James Ruddick

Death at the Priory: Love, Sex, and Murder in Victorian England by James Ruddick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In 1875 the beautiful widow Florence Ricardo married the handsome and successful young attorney Charles Bravo, hoping to escape the scandals of her past. But Bravo proved to be a brutal and conniving man, and the marriage was far from happy. Then one night he suddenly collapsed, and three days later died an agonizing death. His doctors immediately determined that he had been poisoned. The graphic and sensational details of the case would capture the public imagination of Victorian England as the investigation dominated the press for weeks, and the list of suspects grew to include Florence, her secret lover the eminent doctor James Gully, her longtime companion the housekeeper Mrs. Cox, and the recently dismissed stableman George Griffiths. But ultimately no murderer could be determined, and despite the efforts of numerous historians, criminologists, and other writers since (including Agatha Christie), the case has never been definitively solved. Now James Ruddick retells this gripping story of love, greed, brutality, and betrayal among the elite — offering an intimate portrait of Victorian culture and of one woman’s struggle to live in this repressive society, while unmasking the true murderer for the first time. Simultaneously a murder mystery, colorful social history, and modern-day detective tale,

This book covers a true life Victorian death under suspect circumstances and the Author’s attempt to discover the true murderer.

In 1875, the wealthy widow Florence Ricardo marries ambitious barrister Charles Bravo. Less than six months later he was dead, as a result of poisoning by antimony.

Florence’s first marriage was to a heavy drinker who was such a vile character that she left him and returned to her family, only to be put under terrible pressure by family and friends to return to the marriage for the sake of appearances. She does, but it’s not long before he drinks himself to death and she retires to Malvern to recover under the direction of Dr James Gully. Older than her, they however have an intense affair which scandalises society. He aborts the baby that she ends up carrying.

She marries Charles Bravo as a way of restoring her social position. It was not a good marriage – she was headstrong, wishing to control her own substantial finances, and be in control of her own body (and knowing that the abortion had already weakened her system). He was a bully and typical Victorian male – seeing his wife, and her money and body as simple possessions that he could do with what he wanted. He drank heavily, sexually abused her (both raping and sodomising her), and demanding “relations” whether or not she was physically or emotionally ready for it after the failure of two subsequent miscarriages.

The inquest determined that Antimony (a remedy still used today to make people sick when they’ve drunk alcohol) was used to kill Bravo, essentially in such a large quantity that it burned his insides. It was never determined who killed him, mainly because there were too many suspects. Ruddick attempts to pull things together, including the original inquest transcripts, letters to/from some of the suspects and their families, and testimony from their descendants. He presents what he believes is those responsible for the murder (and their motives) and it’s up to you to decide whether he’s correct.

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